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Mindful or Mindless

Mindful Eating Can Help You Avoid Holiday Weight Gain

Tender, baked stuffing and dark, rich gravy. Sugary cookies and chocolate-laden treats. Seconds on the green bean casserole? Yes, please!

No matter what your weakness, the holidays are a prime opportunity to get off track with your diet and gain that dreaded holiday “muffin top.” The good news? You’re probably not gaining as much as you might imagine. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, most people gain an average of a pound from October through February. The bad news is that most don’t lose the weight after the holidays, and over time, this incremental weight gain is a major contributor to obesity.

“The biggest problem for me, and a lot of people don’t think about this, is all those little tiny bites throughout the day,” says Kim Beavers, a registered dietitian with University Health Care System, from eating the broken cookies while baking or treating yourself to special holiday samples at the grocery store. “All those tiny bites available during the holiday season that aren’t available normally can add up to around 300 to 400 calories in a day, and you don’t realize you’ve eaten that much.”

Mindful Eating

But weight management, says Beavers, has changed from an old-school attitude of eating only “good” foods and avoiding “bad” ones to “moving away from deprivation and refocusing on healthy attitudes regarding foods.”

Often referred to as mindful eating, at its most extreme, practitioners eat incredibly slowly and in silence, savoring each and every bite, ruminating on the origin of each ingredient. But, more practically, it’s about slowing down, eating what you want (within moderation), but really enjoying and tasting your food, and making your calories count.

“If you want a chicken wing, have it,” says Beavers. “The assumption is that if you allow yourself to really enjoy a food without guilt and focusing on the actual eating experience, you will be less likely to eat more and more and more because it is not considered forbidden and you have taken the time to actually enjoy it. Healthy eating still needs to be front and center, but one chicken wing does not an unhealthy diet make.”

It also helps prevent its polar opposite, mindless eating. How many of us have sat down in front of the TV with chips and cheese dip, only to discover to our horror that the entire jar and half a bag have gone into our mouths in the space of a half-hour? Mindful eating helps ensure that we are aware of what we’re eating, how much we’re eating and that we’re enjoying our food, not just filling up.

Holiday Danger Zones

While Beavers is fortunate that most holiday foods don’t tempt her (“I don’t like pumpkin pie, stuffing or turkey,” she admits), most of us aren’t that lucky. And at holiday parties and family dinners, where the focus is on eating, drinking and being merry—and Mom is hovering nearby to make sure our plates are never empty—Beavers’ number-one strategy goes back to that idea of mindful eating, making sure you’re eating something really special that you really want.

“Just because it’s on the table, you don’t have to eat it,” she says. “If there’s something special on the appetizer table you really like, allow yourself that opportunity, but keep the portion small. If the food’s not really special—just store-bought stuff—just bypass it. Avoid any of the things you can get any time of the year…it’s just extra calories.”

For example, party staples such as premade dips, cheese cubes and chicken fingers are a dime a dozen (and high in calories per portion size). If you have to have them, get just a small portion—and savor it. But load up your plate with fresh shrimp cocktail and roast beef on toasted bread—great sources of lean protein and not something you’d get every day. And don’t forget to balance out your plate with light and refreshing fruits and vegetables.

When it comes to the family dinner, in these modern times, most of us typically attend multiple family holiday gatherings, and it can be hard to please everyone and dine in moderation. First of all, says Beavers, “Realize it is one day…it’s normal to have some higher calorie foods. You have the opportunity to eat smaller portions, not restricting yourself too harshly.”

But one trick Beavers has to get into the right mindset is to think about the uncomfortable feeling you have when you’ve eaten so much that you’re overstuffed—which can encourage you fill your plate with smaller helpings and politely turn down Aunt Greta’s turkey noodle surprise. “I don’t want to feel bad after I’m done,” says Beavers.

If you have the opportunity to bring a dish or two to round out the family meal, your green bean casserole will be just as delicious if you use reduced-fat products (just don’t go completely fat free, which might alter the taste), or you can copy another of Beavers’ tricks—bring a huge bowl of beautiful cut fresh fruit. “People really like a nice big bowl of fruit,” she says. “It’s easy to make, it’s lighter and it’s just fresh.”

One final holiday danger zone is the office. Workplace politics decrees that we all must feed each other sumptuously at the office come the holidays, when a continuous stream of cookies, cakes and candies make the rounds and tempt you from the office common room. The fact is, if you’re hungry, and there’s a plate of delicious candy cane cookies sitting there, you’re probably going to eat them.

To help avoid those little nibbles throughout the day that can add an entire meal’s worth of calories to your diet, first, says Beavers, make sure that you eat a good breakfast. “So when you get to the office, you’re not starving,” she says.

Second, if you eat when food is around, put it away, or barring that, cover it with aluminum foil so that it’s out of sight, out of mind. One last trick? Chew gum—the flavor and act of chewing can satisfy you when you’re not really hungry but just have the munchies.

Remember, by being mindful of what you eat, and planning ahead for those key holiday danger zones, you can enjoy the holidays to their fullest—and stay healthy. After all, the holidays are a special time of year—a time of celebrating with family and friends, a time of joy and a time of giving. Just don’t let an extra couple of pounds be your gift to yourself this year.

More Tips to Avoid the Holiday “Muffin Top”

Here are a few additional tips from Kim Beavers, registered dietitian at University Health Care System, on how to avoid weight gain during the holidays—and anytime of the year:

• When shopping, park further away from the entrance of the store.
• Add extra activity, such as taking a post-meal walk.
• When eating, use a smaller plate.
• When dining out, choose grilled or baked foods instead of fried food choices.
• If you’re traveling, pack snacks like dried or fresh fruits or nuts.
• When you’ve had your last meal for the day, brush your teeth. A clean fresh mouth can deter you from eating again.

Danielle Wong Moores is an Augusta freelance writer.

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